Queen Zenobia of Palmyra: History, Facts, & Achievements
From Palmyra on the eastern borders of the Roman Province, Queen Zenobia observed the Roman Empire during the third century’s Imperial Crisis (also known as the Crisis of the Third Century) and took advantage of the situation to identify herself with a century dominated by men on thrones and in bloody battlefields. Her full reign began in 267AD, though she had been an active queen consort beforehand.
As Palmyra itself was wealthy and could enjoy sufficient peace, Zenobia sought to break loose from Roman control and strengthen her authority over Palmyrene territories.
Birth and Family History
Odaenathus strived to be a monarch of the East and, like his wife, had interest in establishing Palmyra as capital of an empire beyond Roman influence. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 267 together with Hairan by his kinsmen.
Vaballathus was about 10 years old, still too young to ascend the throne; and as a result, Zenobia reigned as a regent.
Battles and Achievements
At the onset of her reign, she executed her husband’s assassins and intensified her efforts for Palmyra’s autonomy. During the short reign of emperor Claudius Gothicus in a weakened Roman Empire, she was deemed sovereign.
Still warding off the Persians, she moved on to annex many territories including Syria, Asia Minor and much of Anatolia (now Turkey).
More annexations continued during the late 260 AD’s when she organized her armies led by General Zabdas to capture the Roman province of Alexandria and pushed her Palmyrene authority over significant parts of Egypt.
Zenobia’s possible excuse for invading Roman Egypt
Defeat at the hands of Emperor Aurelian
Roman Emperor Aurelian (reign: c. May 270 – c. October 275) was triggered to take Rome’s eastern territories back from the Palmyrene Empire after Zenobia pronounced her son “Augustus” Caesar and herself as Empress or “Augusta” of Rome in 271 AD. Those titles were reserved only for the imperial family of the Roman emperor.
Zenobia adeptly managed her expanding empire, engaging in multifaceted diplomacy and strategic economic endeavors. She brokered trade agreements, navigated diplomatic negotiations with the Sassanid Persians, and annexed territories, all while operating largely autonomously, without seeking Rome’s approval or aligning with its interests.
By 271 AD, Zenobia’s influence was undeniable; she commanded an expansive empire that spanned regions from what is today Iraq, reaching across Turkey and extending down to Egypt. Her swift and independent actions in both diplomacy and territorial expansion showcased her vision and capability as a leader, even as they further distanced her from Roman oversight.
In the ensuing Battle of Immae in 272 AD, her forces were defeated by Aurelian’s near Antioch, and the remaining of her forces fled to Palmyra where Zenobia mounted tough resistance with her archers and cavalry.
Aurelian’s forces pressed the battle harder and ultimately managed to capture the Palmyrene queen and Vaballathus at the Euphrates.
The mother and son were held in hostage to Rome, and, among the various stories concerning what happened in Rome, she blamed her actions on the counsel of Cassius Longinus who was executed.
Before her reign, Zenobia had followed Odaenathus on his hunting expedition, and shared his ambitions of conquest. She learnt battlefield strategies by fighting alongside her husband to expand Palmyra.
The Palmyrene queen also kept a circle of philosophers and intellectuals like the Platonist Cassius Longinus. She played submissive under Roman rule and subtly subdued their authority over Palmyra without revolting or battling Rome directly.
She worked on military campaigns with her generals and had personally led and marched on foot with her army to battlefields.
Debates on Ancestry
Queen Zenobia claimed Egypt as her “ancestral city” after annexation of Alexandria. She even claimed to have lineage go to Queen Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt.
Based on the inscription “Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter of Antiochus”, some scholars have asserted that Zenobia was a distant relative of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, husband of the Ptolemaic Cleopatra Thea.
However, her fluency in Aramaic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin make her ancestry confusing. As intermarriages were common among the noble families in the Palmyrene Empire, it is not unthinkable that she could share the same Syrian lineage with Odaenathus.
Memorials and Legacy
Queen Zenobia left a legacy of bravery and heroism and, as asserted by historian David Graf, she assumed the responsibility of her underage son as well as continued the expansionary efforts of her husband Odaenathus.
The Palmyrene queen featured prominently in the 4th century “Historia Augustus”. Account of her life also feature in works of a number of early historians, including Zonaras, Adi ibn Zayed. 19th century authors Salim al-Bustani, and Ilyas Matar also wrote about her.
Her influence has ran through all forms of arts and culture; American author Harriet Hosmer launched two sculptures of Zenobia in the late 1850s.
Famed Russian empress Catherine the Great, like many ambitious women, compared herself to Zenobia’s might and intelligence.
Also, a 274 AD coin minted in Alexandria bore Zenobia’s face.